choosing images for slideshows


Most of us have to make slideshows at some point – for teaching maybe, or for a conference. We all know that there is a lot of terrible slide practice and we don’t want that to be us.

But there is help out there – you can readily find good advice about how to make effective slides – not too many words, not tiny fonts, watch the colour contrast etc – and I’m not going to repeat any of that here.

Instead, I want to talk about images. No, I’m not going to tell you how to find good images – I use unsplash but there are other free image options out there too.

So if I’m not going to talk about slide composition or where to get images, what is this post about? Well. It’s just a little bit of thinking about how you might choose the images that you put on your slides.

A lot of people think that images are just illustrations and it’s the words that count. Or that images have to have a caption to make any sense. But this is not true. Images can tell a story all by themselves. They don’t need words at all. Images can provoke ideas and emotional and aesthetic responses all on their ownsome.

Image is never simply anything. A picture always brings its own information to the story. An image can say things that words can’t – and vice versa. An image us often a bit slippery, ambiguous. And perhaps because of this, an image can provoke viewer responses in ways that are different from words.

Images work in particular ways when they are combined with words. There are two message systems working at the same time and in the same place. It’s multi-media. So when we combine images with text in slides we have two things to think about. Three if you think about image plus written and spoken words.

So how do you think about the image side of the word and image equation? How can thinking about images help you make good image choices?

Well. My take is that if you have a few helpful thinking tools about anything academic then you are more in charge of what you are trying to do. And I’ve found scholarly work on news media images to be very helpful in thinking about images on slides, and the work that they do.

One of the common scholarly ways of thinking about images and words are through these three categories – three key terms that help us think about the work that images do when they are placed alongside words:

  • Overlap

This is when words and images tell the same story and deal with complementary aspects. The image and words convey different information about the same thing. Sometimes in presentations (and in news reports for instance) what is said even refers to the image – see this here – using a laser pointer in your presentation.

  • Displacement

This is when words and images represent different action components of the same event – so they might show cause and effect for example. So, in a news report you might get the news reader talking about bad weather, while the images show the effects. And in a scholarly presentation you might present context informationin just this way – words about a policy for example, image about its effects.

  • Dichotomy

This is when words and images say different things. Imagine for example a news story about the death of a President which shows images of them performing Presidential duties while the words tell the story of their death. So you might present a text about an exam and an image of a university league table.

Sequences of images also present interesting possibilities. Rather than the narrative residing in one image, the construction of a sequence of images can also be highly informative. Film-makers call this montage. Here, strategies such as detail – zooming in to show something particular – and overview – zooming out to show the wider context – can add important visual information.

Now, I’m not seriously suggesting that in order to make a slide show you need to do a doctorate in social semiotics. No. Life’s too short, unless that is actually your research area.

But I am suggesting that, in understanding some basic image categories, you can better conceptualise the options you have in choosing images. And this means that you can be more in control of your slideshows. You can think about what visual ‘evidence’ you are presenting and how it might work to amplify, extend or verify what you are saying, and how each image will work with the headlines you offer on the slides.

And in thinking about choosing images, you are also thinking about what you most want your audience to do in response to your presentation. You’re focused on how it is that you can achieve this. A talk is always better if you don’t just think about what you want to say, but also how your audience will respond.

Of course, thinking about choice means that you can be more creative too and perhaps have a little fun when getting those slides together. What images can you find that will engage your audience as well as inform them? Is it an overlap, a displacement or a dichotomy?


If you are interested in this kind of media work, then check out Monika Bednarek and Helen Caple’s (2012)  News discourse. Bloomsbury, particularly Chapter Five.  And maybe categorise the image I have used in this post!

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash



About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, image, powerpoint, slideshow and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to choosing images for slideshows

  1. sian says:

    Love this post! Thank you


  2. Pingback: Research conference 2019 – louisehayesdoctoratejourney

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